Finding the Sign

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The morning of the surgery arrived. Everyone was in place. After a quick kiss and a squeeze of his hand I watched as they wheeled him down the long white hall towards surgery. I was adrift in a sea of restless feelings. My lungs restricted as the panic began to rise.

I followed his parents to the waiting room where the Doctor had told us it would be about a two-hour wait. The staff was positive and upbeat, his parents quietly hopeful, and I was a wreck. Nothing held my attention as my mind tossed around scenario after scenario.

It was 10:00 AM and I began to pray…..

Time is not constant. Sometimes it speeds by in a flash, at other times, it slows to a mush of a crawl. Right now, I had a good idea of what eternity felt. At the two hour mark, I found there was less oxygen in the room as my lungs struggled for air and tears threatened to fall. The elderly lady at the information desk informed me that everything was okay. She encouraged me to go have lunch, they would call me. Sometimes surgery took a little longer……

Food sounded terrible. His mother and father decided to find the cafeteria. I continued my vigil. I had the room memorized. Every tiny crack, flaw and dust mote. And another hour stretched out as I wandered the waiting room, looking out the one small window to the dreary, drenched world outside….

Then the surgeon appeared. His young face etched with left over lines of concentration. A smile lifted them away. “He’s doing well. It took a little longer than we anticipated. The tumor had eaten through the bowel wall and it was ruptured. He is a very lucky man. There was a lot of infection, and we couldn’t tell if we got all the cancer. During the process we also had to take out his spleen. In trying to get out all possible cancer it was nicked and we couldn’t stop the bleeding. He has metal marker clips in so they can do radiation for prevention. We removed several lymph nodes and those will be tested to see if the cancer has spread into the lymphatic system. Right now we are moving him to the ICU to make sure he is stable through the night. Give it about another hour for them to get him set up and you can see him.”

I stammered out my thanks as his parents stoically asked a few more questions. Even if Darrell hadn’t seemed to need them, I was grateful they had waited with me. They were staying with his sister and they decided to leave now that he was in the ICU. They asked if I wanted to go with them. I don’t remember what I told them, but it was convincing enough they left me alone. I held it together long enough to say my goodbyes then I fled to the chapel before the panic attack came on.

I was lucky enough to have the place to myself. The storm hit. Tears poured. My thoughts jumbled. The guarantees, the words I needed to hear, had not been forthcoming. I had wanted to hear they got it all. There was nothing to worry about. It was over. He would be fine. The cancer was gone. Instead, it seemed we faced more procedures and still no guarantee he would survive this.

Would I be able to care for him? What if this was going to be a lingering downhill slide? Was I up to caring for a bed-ridden husband? Could I go through the slow process of watching him die in inches? I thought of my great-aunt whose husband had been partially paralyzed by a stroke six years before. She was his constant caregiver. Bathing, dressing and feeding him was a 24-hour job. I remembered her gaunt features and tired smile. Could I do this for Darrell? My heart screamed yes, my mind said no.

I still had young children at home. A movie theatre business to run. Plus my own job at the hospital. My mind scurried to make plans, try to cover all the details. Exhaustion crept over me. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up to a time before cancer.

A huge Bible lay open on the simple podium. I looked at it in anger. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted things to be okay, not a cloudy future of uncertainty. I found my legs moved on their own accord and I was standing in front of it. It was open to the book of Job. The voice in my head snorted. I didn’t need to read about Job’s life, I was living the life of Job.

It lay open to Job 33. Line 23 caught my  – If there is a messenger for him, a mediator, one among a thousand…..  I backed up, to line 16, hungrily reading to line 33. Tears fell.  I needed to pray, the Lord in His mercy, could and would pull a person from the edge of the pit of death, so that this person could be enlightened and healed.

I looked up at the jewel tone stain glass in front of me. A simple Cal-lily framed in blue. If even one person prays. I pleaded for his health, for more time, for healing. A peace stole over me. The tears ceased. I wiped my nose. I went looking for the ICU unit.

The Flight Response

The Flight Response

Yup. I was hiding in the bathroom again.

Don’t worry; it isn’t always going to start like this!  I eventually break the habit. This day was actually a turning point. The journey had its highs and its lows. Remember, this was all new to me. I had never faced the death or illness of a loved one before.  And even though I worked as a CNA, it was a lot different caring for other people than someone close to me. The responsibility and heart connection was a whole new experience.

It had started that morning.  Darrell had insisted on sleeping in the nice recliner they had in his room. It kept his side from aching as much. He always liked recliners. I stayed with him every night, so that left only an empty hospital bed or a plastic chair for me to sleep in. I was exhausted from almost a week of hospital living. He insisted I take the bed. We decided to ask the evening nurse if this was okay, and she said yes.

The morning shift nurse that found me slumbering in his bed was not amused nor a happy morning person.

“This is against hospital policy, ma’am.  This bed is for the patient. Get out of it now.” Of course this was at 6:00 AM.

Darrell growled back at her. “We got permission and my wife is exhausted. I prefer the recliner, because frankly the bed is hard as hell.”

She huffed and bustled off, giving me the evil-eye.  When she left the room Darrell and I giggled, feeling like we had won something grand.

Next in was his Doctor, who informed us tests had come back and the gastrologist would be in to see us shortly. Relief flooded me because we would finally have an answer.

The gastrologist got right to the point. His voice quietly washed over us as he pronounced the findings.  “You have a tumor in your colon that has perforated the bowel. It has come back positive for cancer.  The best treatment at this point is surgery. Your surgeon will be in to see you next. Do you have any questions?”

I held my breath to block the sudden wave of adrenaline that turned my blood cold and tears that threatened to pour out. I thought it was a death sentence. Looking at my pink-cheeked husband, who was in the prime of life, I couldn’t see the invisible specter of the enemy.  I thought they had made a mistake. It happens, doesn’t it?  A misdiagnosis?   There was a scrambling of thoughts crashing through my mind as I stared at the demure-looking man who had just torn my world apart.

I glanced over at Darrell. He was nodding his head, a blank look in his eyes. I suspected we were both experiencing something similar except for him it had to be far worse since he was the one who actually had the cancer. I knew I had to ask questions. Darrell just went with the flow of things and depended on my limited medical knowledge. I found my voice. “Is this where the bleed is?”

The gastrologist looked relieved for some strange reason. “Yes. From the looks of it, it has been going on for a while. Mr. Gabel, have you had any black tarry stools?”

Darrell’s eyes focused and his eyebrows rose. “Yes, but I just thought it was something I ate.”

“For how long?”

“Well for a couple weeks at least.”

The gastrologist went on to explain the body couldn’t break down blood so it came out colored black and sticky. I was thinking other things, like how I wanted to strangle my husband. Why hadn’t he said something? Why hadn’t he mentioned the tiredness, the pain, the change in bowel habits? I would have known immediately to get him to a doctor. Was it all men or just Gabel men who were oblivious to the fact they were not immune to disease or illness?

Silence filled the room after the gastrologist left. Darrell’s pleasant baritone filled the air as he stated, “Well that sucks.”

I turned away from the window I was staring out of while I forced myself into emergency mode and put the tears on hold. “You think, Sherlock?” I fired back.

He smiled. It was our way to handle stress with humor and sass. Anyone else would have expected my condolences and comfort. We just teased each other. It was where we were comfortable.  Besides, I was angry with him at the moment, but lecturing him now wouldn’t change anything.

The door opened again. For a room that had been empty of any medical personnel the last few days, but usually crammed to the brim with family and friends, it seemed suddenly Darrell was most popular patient on the floor.

A tall, boyish-looking surgeon strode in, offering his hand. “I’m Dr. Brown, and I will be doing the surgery to remove your tumor.  I need to do a brief examine and discuss your options.”

The usual litany of questions went on as he lifted Darrell’s gown. “Are you allergic to any drugs? How old are you? Any other health concerns? Do you smoke? For how long? Any family history of cancer? “

I watched him, wondering just how old he was. The shock of hearing the word cancer was wearing off. I wanted to hear reassurances. I wanted him to tell us that the surgery would cure it. That this was survivable. That all would be okay. Instead….

“Mr. Gabel, the surgery should take about two hours, depending how much the tumor has spread. We will be checking lymph nodes, and taking tissue to test to see if the cancer has metastasized. From there, after surgery, you will see your physician and discuss any further follow up of treatments including chemotherapy. Now…”

He stood back, staring at Darrell’s abdomen.  I had to know what was going to happen. I started asking questions. Absently the surgeon answered while still staring at Darrell.

The he turned and looked at both of us. “So I can either cut down laterally between the abdomen muscles here.” His finger traced the path down Darrell’s stomach. “Or I can do what is called a ‘Mercedes cut ‘across the chest here…”

It was at this point I panicked and ran out of the room.

It would be the last time I sought out a porcelain sanctuary during his hospitalization.

It Begins

In May of 1990, I heard the diagnosis of ‘cancer’ for the first time.  The queerest feeling settled in my stomach.  My heart rivaled the cadence of a racehorse’s hoof beats.  At the age of thirty six, I had never dealt with this disease and to me, this was a death sentenced to my soulmate.

It had started quietly enough. Darrell was a hard working man, running his own theatre business. I worked at the hospital to supplement the income. So it was no surprise to me that after he got what we thought was the flu, that he would come home in the afternoon to take a nap.

You see the symptoms, but you attribute them to something else. Like maybe he just couldn’t shake the flu. Until one morning, due to an extreme pain in his left side,he couldn’t get out of bed.

“If you don’t go see the doctor today, I will call an ambulance right now,” I growled. I had been encouraging him to see a doctor, but like most men, he said he was fine.

“Okay,” he acquiesced with a grimace.  I helped him get ready while calling into work.

Two hours later I was breaking the speed limit trying to get to Billings, MT.  His hematocrit was 18, normal can be anywhere from 28 to 35. Somewhere he was losing blood. His doctor wondered how he had managed to walk in there, let alone be conscious.

I knew Darrell was sick because this was a man who never closed his eyes when I drove and he was passed out in the back seat. Normally I would have been gleeful that I was pushing the little K-car far beyond it’s limits at 80, but my mind was filled with fear.

I prayed.  Please don’t let it be leukemia, please don’t let it be an internal bleed, please don’t let it be……on and on. I didn’t leave out much it actually could be.

Finally, with tears scalding my cheeks, the road blurry in front of me, I slowed down. I decided I would just trust the Creator I had prayed to for so long. This was in His hands. Whatever the outcome, I knew He would get me through. It wouldn’t be the last time I would take this test.

A calm filled my heart and mind. As we checked into the Deaconess Hospital, Darrell revived enough to joke around with the receptionist.

“Yes, my last name is Gabel. All my relatives live in the Billings area. If their last name is Gabel, I’m probably related.” Billings was his home town. They had a lot to talk about. But I was thinking If she called me Mrs. Gabel one more time, I would smack her.

It seemed foreign to me. The oddest things stand out when you are under stress. Mrs. Gabel was Darrell’s mom, not me. It seemed so impersonal. Yet Darrell and I rarely used warm little nicknames, like ‘honey’ or ‘sweety’. Having started our relationship off by working with each other professionally, we always used our first names.

That was about to change. A lot was about to change in our world. Unfortunately I would become intimately acquainted with cancer.

I felt that sinking feeling when my husband’s mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2006.  We raced to fulfill her last few desires.  The last two months were agonizing for all of us.

In 2008, I once again heard that detested word. I already had a foreshadowing of what was to come when I noticed my husband limping across the living room, then discovered the lump in his thigh.  This time though, I was a little more battle scarred.  I knew the routine and dug in.

And just as I finally thought we had won the battle, I heard the word that I detested in March, 2015. The feeling that washed over me this time was pure anger and determination.

I realize now I will never hear the word cancer and not feel that moment of panic. No matter how many times I face it. Like any disease, it insidiously and slowly saps our energy. It takes our loved ones in pieces. Yet, as dark as this might sound, it is a mixed bag of blessings as well.

You never look at a relationship the same. It becomes more precious. You can never appreciate truly someone or the time spent with them, until you are stripped of the expectation they will be with you forever on this earth.

All I can say is cancer simply sucks.